Possible ‘trainwreck’ ahead as Republican candidates wrestle with defending the worst of Trumpism

Trump embraces Minnessota Republican Senate candidate Karin Housley in Rochester on Oct. 4, 2018 (video screen capture)
Trump embraces Minnessota Republican Senate candidate Karin Housley in Rochester on Oct. 4, 2018.
Republican congressional candidates in the November election are unabashedly running on the Trump agenda and under the Trump banner. But by and large, they have not had to say how strongly they support his more outrageous conduct – the stuff that’s really aberrational.

Most of them, however, will have no choice but to address Trump’s most extreme behavior in the next few weeks as they finally come face to face with their Democratic opponents in debates.

It will be interesting to see how far they go. There are so many areas worth probing, but I’ll focus on two in particular: Trump’s disrespect for the rule of law, and his style of governing.

Trump has routinely applied political pressure to the Justice Department, including calling for the criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton. He has attacked judges whose rulings he disliked.

Most importantly: He shows every sign of replacing top Justice Department officials after the midterms, thereby ending or curtailing the criminal investigation into his own campaign’s possible collusion with Russian interference in the 2016 election.

How much of that will Republican candidates associate themselves with?

And how much if any distance will they put between themselves and Trump’s statements about minorities and white supremacists and his treatment of women? Will they join him in declaring that all but one or two of the nation’s major media outlets are “fake news”? Will they back away from his mockery of Christine Blasey Ford?

Trump himself has certainly endorsed the notion that the midterms are a referendum on him. “Get out and vote. I want you to vote pretend I’m on the ballot,” he said in Mississippi on Tuesday, a variation on a common theme.

And the candidates, almost without exception, are declaring their loyalty.

“They’re all using him in their ads,” Jennifer Duffy, who follows congressional campaigns for the Cook Poltical Report, told me. “And they are using a lot of his rhetoric. There’s lots of talk about the wall, about chain migration. They talk a lot about sanctuary cities.”

But there haven’t been a lot of debates yet — where they will be on the spot to respond to tough questions about other aspects of Trumpism while trying to win over moderate Republicans and independents.

“I think efforts to defend a lot of the President’s actions may lead to some spectacular falls,” Duffy said.

Duffy said she expects candidates in the reddest states to defend Trump unconditionally. That, she said, “could be a trainwreck.”

Politico today has an article about how Florida Republican congressional candidate Michael Waltz turned down Trump’s offer to hold a rally in his district. An “insider” told Politico the concern was that “you never know what’s going to come out of his mouth.”

But the campaign insisted Waltz is still running on the Trump agenda: “Michael Waltz proudly supports the many successes President Trump has achieved on behalf of the American people.”

What happens, though, when candidates like Waltz have to face questions from debate moderators or Democratic opponents that force them to clarify how far their support goes? Will they distance themselves or go all in?

For instance:

  • Do they think it is OK for Trump to tell the Justice Department how to conduct criminal investigations?
  • Do they support Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey,
  • Do they agree with Trump that he faces a cabal of hostile “deep state” bureaucrats and a hostile FBI?
  • Do they agree that Robert Mueller’s investigation is a “witch hunt”?
  • Do they share Trump’s view that the #MeToo movement is “very dangerous” and unfairly threatens  powerful men?
  • Do they defend tweets like this one?
  • What about the fact that he lies all the time? There are so many examples, but: Say, that he brags about new steel plants when there aren’t any, or that he denies that thousands of people were killed in Puerto Rico on account of Hurricane Maria?
  • Was meeting alone with Vladimir Putin a good idea?
  • How do you defend Trump’s personnel choices? Was Mike Flynn “the best people”? Was Scott Pruitt draining the swamp?
  • Did the Russians interfere in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf? Isn’t that alarming?
  • Is the president a role model for our nation’s children?

These are not questions that the Republican candidates answer unprompted. But the answers will tell us a lot about whether the post-Trump Republican Party stands for Trump’s most norm-shattering conduct. And it will also clarify the significance of the election as a referendum.

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